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This buyer's guide lists sturdy, kid-friendly garden trains you can use to get and keep the kids involved.
Kid-Friendly Trains - I have raised my children with trains, including toy trains, model trains that were sturdy enough to be handled by children, and "real" model trains. Update for 2014 - Last year, I had to completely revise this page because so many of my favorite kids trains were discontinued.
Of all the trains on this page, I recommend Bachmann's Li'l Big Haulers as the best investment in your kids' or grandkids' love of trains. The big caveat is that some of these trains on this page in short supply already, and as the economy shows signs of improvement, I expect many of these trains to "jump off the shelves" this fall.
Note about Availability and Pricing: Although I try to keep an eye on things and to recommend products that are reasonably available, the model train market does fluctuate, and any product on this page may change price or become unavailable without prior notice. Note about Suppliers: While we try to help you get the products you want by recommending suppliers with a good record of customer service, all transactions between you and the supplier you chose to provide your trains or other purchases are governed by the published policies on the supplier's web site. Bachmann's "Li'l Big Hauler" line and "Thomas and Friends"(r) line are less detailed and more rugged than their model train lines, as you would expect for kid-friendly trains. The Bachmann Thomas and Friends(r) line is a little bigger, and slightly more detailed than the Li'l Big Hauler line, but the two trains are completely compatible. Bachmann's Thomas with Annie and Clarabel - Bachmann's Large Scale Thomas the Tank line is pretty solid and lots of fun. Bachmann's Percy with the Troublesome Trucks - Bachmann's Percy is an excellent companion for Thomas.
Li'l Big Hauler Short Line Train - Bachmann's Li'l Big Hauler Short Line train includes a kid-friendly locomotive and two "shortie" passenger cars. Li'l Big Hauler Short Line Train - Bachmann's Li'l Big Hauler freight train includes a kid-friendly "tank" locomotive, two "shortie" freight cars and a "shortie" caboose. Li'l Big Hauler Add-ons - To make their Li'l Big Hauler line as useful and flexible as possible for families, Bachmann offers individual cars and locomotives you can use to expand your kids' empire or to add a few kid-friendly pieces to any garden railroad. Lots of the "play value" with trains involves setting things up, moving things around, giving the trains reasons to stop and start, and so on. Note: Playmobil's little people and many of their accessories can easily be pulled apart and the pieces swallowed. Every autumn, cheap, battery powered toy trains hit the stores, trying to snag folks who want a train around their tree at Christmas, but who don't want to spend "real money" on a train.
The sets in this list are toys, but they're designed by legitimate companies for years of use. Buy fresh Alkaline batteries when you buy the trains, even if they say they come with batteries.
Watch Out for Cheapies - By the way, over the years, Lionel has also authorized a few manufacturers of really cheap toys to make seasonal toy trains in their name.
The following section lists kid-friendly trains big enough for garden railroads that have been discontinued.
Lehmann Toy Trains - Lehmann is the German toy company that created LGB trains, resurrecting garden railroading as a worldwide hobby a few decades back.
By the way, the original Playmobil train was very similar to this line, and I give it the same recommendation.
Back in 1988, PlaySkool made a very solid child's train that was battery powered, and had a figure-eight track setup.
Lionel once made Large Scale Thomas and James sets and a few other pieces to go along with them. Bachmann's Thomas set (above) is similar and still made, so it has an advantage, but don't rule out one of the Lionel Large Scale Thomas or James sets if you come across it.
AristoCraft's most "kid-friendly" product was probably the "Eggliner." These were little oval-shaped locomotives that looked like tiny passenger cars moving under their own power. Honorable mention goes to "Toots the Train," Fisher Price's 1999 parallel to the very useful PlaySkool Express (above). Although I've recommended specific products, and I do urge you not to confuse flimsy seasonal toys with well-made trains from reputable manufacturers, the big "takeaway" should be that there are any number of ways to help your kids get involved with toy, model, and garden trains, and several products that are designed specifically for that purpose. The real value of trains, of course, is a reason to spend quality, creative time with your kids. Please contact us if you have any questions or corrections or would like to add any tips, tricks, suggestions, or recommendations. Note: Family Garden Trains?, Garden Train Store?, Big Christmas Trains?, BIG Indoor Trains?, and BIG Train Store? Turning Safe Search OFF may display content intended for mature audiences.You must be at least 18 years old to continue. Please enter at least one email addressYou are trying to send out more invites than you have remaining. This gondola car and the three accompanying barrels were available with the Playskool Express train set in 1988 and 1989.
Most of my friends in the regional clubs have their "open railroads" in the early fall, when they've had all summer to prepare. Every year I think I'll have more time to get things ready, but every new year brings its own issues. In other years, the long-term preparations have involved a lot of right-of-way preparation, as well as rehabbing structures and other hard-core maintenance. People who run battery and remote control trains like to brag about how much time they "save" by not having to clean the track. I gave the railroad a pretty thorough weeding in late September, but due to finally getting some rainfall, it needed another one by late October. After I had the weeding and ground-cover trimming done (maybe a 20-hour job), I cleaned the rails (a 1-hour job), hooked up power, and tested the locomotives I planned to use.
An AristoCraft "Critter" four-wheeled industrial-style diesel locomotive that is my most reliable "workhorse" for Christmas-themed operations.
A Bachmann closed streetcar, painted for Christmas - a backup to keep SOMETHING running if everything else fails.

A few other backups to the backups, including some PRR-painted 0-4-0s I can put on the track in a pinch. If you're wondering why I have so many Christmas-themed locomotives it's because I used to loan them out to friends and clubs for Christmas railroads or displays. I've been experimenting with little LED spotlights, sold two and three years ago by Walmart as "Brinkman" brand. For "Christmas Train Day" I also put LED Christmas light strands on all but three of the trees on and around my railroad - multi-colored for the trees on the railroad, blue for the trees behind it. On the other hand, last year, I got a lot of compliments on the two Phillips "twinkling" LED light strands I used. Most of my trashbashed storefronts that I rehabilitated a few years back are still somewhat useful, and they had lighting installed already, so I used them again, probably the last year for a few of them until they're completely disassembled and rebuilt.
The three Piko storefronts I bought from a friend in 2009 were still intact, although my friend's dependence on the Piko's factory paint job is showing in the fact that they've become discolored. Since I planned to expand the number of kids' railroads and wanted buildings for them, too, I started another batch of "trashbashed" buildings. I printed curtains for these, but I didn't have time to install lighting in the new buildings. One addition that made it onto the railroad at the "last minute" is a toy log cabin I got cheap a year or so ago and just barely had time to spraypaint with gray and brown primer. To light my buildings, I used the same Malibu power supplies I used last year, one on the north end of the railroad, and one on the south end.
I have to admit it's a bit more challenge to set out, light, and populate four or five communities outside than it is to set your Dept. Several of the buildings were still lit from last summer, and four of the stations were still lit since last winter. So far autumn had been pretty nice to me - nice in the sense that it got cold early so that most of the leaves fell a couple weeks before Christmas Train Day, and I had time to get the yards more-or-less cleared of leaves.
Our first "kids train" ever was an elevated loop that we built for a clinic in 2007, with the plan of running Thomas or James for the kids. The first year we used it in our open railroad, it was sitting too far from the light for the kids to see after dark. By the way, Thomas and James both run fine on the permanent garden railroad, and we've run them there in the past, when there were kids over and this loop wasn't set up. We also put the Lionel "G Gauge" Polar Express toy train on the wellcover again, as we had last year.
Since the kids were having to wait a long time for a turn at the Polar Express last year, we added a third trains for kids to run - another Lionel train that we got on closeout two years ago. Two years ago, we showed Buster Keaton's The General after dark, using a low-powered projector and a 4'x4' painted piece of plywood leaning against a hedge. Using lumber I had bought for another purpose and never got around to using, I built a solid stand for my little 4'x4' "screen" and made certain the old projector was aligned, focused, and ready to go.
I set the projector on a milk carton and kept shimming it with sticks, etc., until I got a "perfect" projection on my little screen.
The morning of the event, my daughter Molly and her friend put an arc of little solar lights on one side of the "theatre" to indicate a "boundary." It's surprising how little things like that can "dress up" an area. Though we were going to add grilled hot dogs, the big snack "star" of the show was still the theatre-style popcorn popper we bought two years ago. The New Boston Station was a kit that I painted in colors inspired by my friend Wil Davis' station.
I got the trains on the track and got the sound tracks started (one from a hidden boom box by the driveway and one behind the railroad, using outdoor speakers and an old stereo amp that is protected from the weather). With the help of a young friend named Spencer, we got hot dogs on the grill, and Shelia got the food set out. Two visitors who have been here before showed up a half hour early, but we were pretty much ready anyway. Everyone but one fellow* was gracious and appreciative, and many had lots of questions about garden railroads, toy trains, and Christmas trains that we were glad to answer. There have been years when we went to this much effort, more or less, and had only 30 or so visitors. Here's a friend's grandson who really seems to enjoy operating the remote control for the Polar Express.
The young fellow at the right had figured out how to enjoy the trains and the snacks at the same time. Big people enjoyed the trains, too, as this photo shows, although November's long shadows give it a sort of Stephen King vibe.
By the time the night was over, we figure we had over a hundred visitors (they didn't all sign in).
And because the weather was so nice, many people stayed and visited and watched the trains for a long time. The last time we ran a movie like this outdoors, we had to bring out blankets for people to stay warm. I started the movie at twilight, though with the low lumen rating of the projector, you couldn't really see much until it was much darker. One family watched almost the whole thing, even though by the end, it was getting a little cold to sit still for that long. That said, the premier of the "New Boston Bijou" was successful by any measure, and I'm already planning on doubling the screen size for future viewings.
It seems like the folks who came in the afternoon stayed 20-30 minutes (longer if they had kids who were running the trains), then left, feeling like they'd seen everything there was to see. I can't guarantee that "a good time was had by all," but if anyone came and didn't enjoy himself or herself, it wasn't our fault. We also had several families that were considering getting a train for their kids or starting a garden railroad, that hopefully found our examples and advice helpful. When I went around putting things away, I noticed that some enterprising children had filled up two gondolas with "logs" made of sticks from the yard - the gondola on the Lionel Santa Fe, and Thomas' "Troublesome Truck." BTW, we ran James and the passenger cars a few times, but the kids honestly preferred to watch (and sometimes chase) Thomas.

I would like to have a brief open railroad in May for the regional NMRA convention, and be open at least one day in June, for the National Garden Railway Convention. I pulled the plugs, turned off the music, brought in the projector, etc., and you would be surprised how fast a "winter wonderland" can turn into just another dark back yard. Every year I promise myself we'll be more prepared, and every year our helpers are working right up to the last minute to get things ready.
This year, the family really kicked in to help, and it showed in every aspect of the event. And, through the power of the Intenet, we get to share the fun of this day with literally thousands of people who couldn't have been here if they tried. If you think you might be coming through southwest Ohio and you want to stop by, or if you want to be put on our mailing list for future open houses, please contact us and let us know. In retrospect, I've concluded that the fellow doesn't have a garden railroad, or he'd have asked meaningful questions about the supporting (unseen) infrastructure, or the variety of plants, or the trestle construction, or a dozen other things that tend to concern fellow hobbyists.
I'm sure that whenever he starts his garden railroad, every detail will be authentic, the structures will all be built up, strip-by-strip from scale lumber, and no red-and-green locomotive will ever profane his scrupulously "superscale" settings.
If our visitor returns next spring or summer, the seasonal lighting will be taken down, the Christmas music won't be playing, the plastic buildings may be replaced with something else, the Lemax figures may replaced with more "model-railroady-looking" figures, some of the trees will have been trimmed, and the Christmas trains may be replaced by trains with more realistic paint jobs.
The story of our preparations for 2008's Christmas-Themed open railroad is told in a series of blogs starting in here. To read more, or to look at recommended Garden Railroading and Display Railroad products, you may click on the index pages below. Playskool Pipeworks, and check out Playskool Pipeworks on Wikipedia, Youtube, Google News, Google Books, and Twitter on Digplanet. Playskool Pipeworks with the unique 'click-lock' locking system is a construction toy consisting of white tubes and multi-colored connectors assembled and disassemble with a plastic wrench. Pipeworks first introduced in the 1980s were originally available as three different Pipeworks sets. The same manual was shipped with 1000, 2000 & 3000 sets but the only way to build everything in it was to purchase the Deluxe Set 3000 as it had all the necessary parts. Every year since my kids went off to college, I've had "open railroads," where I ran my "big trains" for the "big people" and set up multiple "kid-friendly" trains for visiting children to run. From time to time, companies that make garden trains have made kid-friendly buildings and accessories. Best of all, the train itself would run on Large Scale (45mm) track, although it wouldn't run over turnouts (switches), rerailers, or crossovers. Our article Thomas the Tank Shootout reviews both sets and describes the differences between the Bachmann and Lionel versions. In years past, I have also run this on the kids' railroads to save wear and tear on Thomas in the years when cold weather started keeping the kids away after dark. If you're wondering why I need so many locomotives for an open railroad in which I'll never run more than three track-powered locomotives at once, its because Murphy's law goes into overdrive as soon as you have people over. That process, still not quite complete, is described in our article "Trashbashing Step By Step".
Several of the buildings could have been lit, but I was running low on time, and I'm not crazy about having too much electrical stuff around kids anyway (hence the battery trains described below). But a few days before the big day, we had a storm from the north that blew what seemed like all of the remaining leaves in the county onto the north end of the railroad. But many kids seem to appreciate having Thomas closer to their "eye level." Plus if they feel the need to "crowd" Thomas, or to chase him around the track, they're not kicking down buildings, lights, and little people like they tend to do when Thomas is running on the permanent railroad. It's not usually quite this busy, but my daughters kept finding more boxes of little people. We brought over chairs we had used elsewhere in the yard to make certain their was enough seating. Above all I'd like to thank Shelia, Kristen, Emily, Molly, my sister Tess, and Molly's friend Emily for all their help. Hopefully, seeing this article has given you some ideas, some inspiration, or at least some Christmas cheer. Besides the elephant-in-the-room - the kind of courage it takes to do all of this prep for an outside event in November.
Later in 1987 Playskool introduced the final and largest set called the Super Wheel Set 4000 consisting of 150 pieces and a new manual with instruction for 45 new projects. Aired to the Detroit, MI market.Playskool Pipeworks pt 2- Doll StrollerWe make a doll stroller and put a real doll in it! So at open houses, I can put it on a simple garden railroad, let the kid hit the switch (on the smokestack) and let-er-rip around the track, without worrying about little kids doing any damage to a model.
All information, data, text, and illustrations on this web site are Copyright (c) 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 by Paul D. Dumb accidents, equipment failures, and the normal wear and tear that comes from running a train eight hours straight.
Still, a few kids who had already been there quite a while, and had run all the trains and consumed lots of popcorn and cookies sat down to watch while their parents visited with other adults. All information, data, text, and illustrations on this web site are Copyright (c) 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 by Paul D. So this year, I changed the name of the event to "Christmas Train Day," added some details in the "fine print," and handed it out the cards that way.
So if you see a set you think your kids would like to use with their train, don't wait too long.

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